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Jay Larsen: Idaho businesses drive transportation innovation

Inch-thick panels developed by Solar Roadways, a Sagle company owned by Scott and Julie Brusaw, will melt snow and ice, power LED lights embedded in the roadway and generate electricity.
Inch-thick panels developed by Solar Roadways, a Sagle company owned by Scott and Julie Brusaw, will melt snow and ice, power LED lights embedded in the roadway and generate electricity. Rendering provided by Solar Roadways

There was a time when having your groceries delivered by an unmanned aerial vehicle while you check your email in your driverless car seemed like silly science fiction. Today? UAV delivery is a matter of months — not years — away, and driverless cars could be a reality within a decade. The future of transportation is happening now.

Of course, advanced transportation is about more than driverless cars. It’s about engineering secure control systems that leverage wired and wireless networks to manage mass transit. It’s about next-generation air traffic control systems that operate autonomously, without human oversight or the potential for human error. It’s about leveraging intelligent sensors and data analytics to communicate valuable traffic and environmental information from vehicle to vehicle in real time. And it’s about advances in energy storage and efficiency that may fundamentally alter a decades-old infrastructure system. And that’s just the beginning.

This research is happening right here, all around the state. Idaho is at the leading edge of innovation around advanced transportation technologies and applications. For example:

▪  The Idaho Department of Commerce, in partnership with the Idaho National Laboratory and the Center for Advanced Energy Studies, launched the Autonomous Systems Center of Excellence almost a year ago. Located at the CAES facility in Idaho Falls, the Center of Excellence is looking at applications of autonomous vehicles in precision agriculture and natural-resource management. Imagine, for example, how sophisticated autonomous aerial vehicles could be used for field diagnostics related to pest infestations or drought stress, collecting data to help minimize costs related to corrective measures.

▪  American Semiconductor in Boise is developing significant intellectual property around flexible integrated circuits, a technology with a wealth of applications. Traditionally, aircraft have been designed around the electronics needed to operate them. But imagine eliminating that requirement — building an aircraft only with flight characteristics in mind, knowing the electronic circuitry is flexible enough to mold to that fuselage. That fundamentally changes the design approach, and American Semiconductor is making that possible.

▪  Advanced transportation is a major initiative at the INL, as is energy storage, which is a key component to transportation innovation. Inergy, in Eastern Idaho, is an innovator in this area. The company is combining solar power and portable electric storage units. That presents interesting possibilities for powering next-gen electric vehicles or devices across the transportation infrastructure.

▪  Solar Roadways, a company in North Idaho, is developing solar panels with advanced materials incorporated into their surfaces so they actually can be used on the roads. One of the challenges of solar energy is the footprint required to make it scalable. But imagine miles and miles of roadways, collecting solar energy and feeding it back to the grid.

▪  Evolutionary Markings, in Boise, is applying solar technologies to improve markings on the roads, using LED lights to ensure better environmental compatibility and improved visibility at all hours and in all weather conditions. Pilot deployments in Portland and Olympia, Wash., are underway. And the company is working with the INL and the University of Idaho to use its technology to support various types of sensors being designed to collect and share data on road conditions.

▪  Boise-based Preco has been on the forefront of transportation safety in the heavy-duty vehicle industry for decades, developing safety products and software that integrate with today’s most advanced technology. The company is a leader in understanding and enabling data collection, analysis and transmission in the interest of driver safety.

Those activities represent just a slice of the research happening around the state. Experts from many of these companies and organizations will participate and lead discussions around next-generation transportation in the sixth annual Energy Connected Conference, Tuesday and Wednesday, March 1-2, in the Zions Bank Executive Conference Rooms in Boise.

Mark Peters, director of INL, will kick off two days’ worth of keynote addresses, panels and discussion on transportation innovation. This is a critical, growing segment of our state’s economy, and I encourage anyone interested in learning more to register and attend.

Jay Larsen is president and founder of the Idaho Technology Council. jaylarsen@idahotechcouncil.org. This column appears in the Feb. 17-March 16, 2016, edition of the Idaho Statesman’s Business Insider magazine as part of a special section on Idaho technology.

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